By David Bryant
Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas were hit, and hit hard, by Hurricane Laura. United Methodist Volunteers in Mission Early Response Teams from across the Gulf states responded.
Then came Sally. Then Beta. They came straight into Mobile Bay, whose teams were already responding from Lake Charles to Houston.
So a group of ERTs from the South Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church went to Mobile, Alabama, and Pensacola, Florida.
The motto written on every ERT trailer and many personal vehicles is “Christian Love in Action.” The daily question for meditation and reflection is always, “Where did you see Jesus today?” We had come to work. We went to work, and work we did, mostly clearing downed trees from around and on houses, some patching of damaged roofs and covering of roofs with tarps.
But where was Jesus? Some might look at the damage and devastation, the unfairness of repeated natural disasters, the layers of burden and distress piled one on another from COVID to hurricanes, tropical storms and tornadoes heaped upon pre-existing conditions of age, health, disability and poverty and ask, “Where was Jesus?”
Well, Jesus was in the face of every person we helped. Some faces projected relief, some determination, some fear, some frustration—but all gratitude, relief and hope. The lady awaiting a cardiac cath and heart surgery within days who we could not help, but who thanked us for praying with her before we left. The lady whose son had died and been buried far away in the midst of the disaster. The retired firefighter who had spent his life serving others but now needed help, the one person who beat us to the punch of leading group prayer by asking if he could lead us, leaving 13 adults with tears. The folks who brought out more water than we could drink because that’s all they had to offer. The man who protected us from his dogs. The lady who was her dad’s caregiver and was trying to preserve his home. And, yes, Morgan, an emergency medicine physician on R&R on Dauphin Island.
But where else? Well, in the convenience store customers who thanked us and tried to buy us snacks. The drivers who saw our caravans and yielded to let us stay together instead of blocking us out to beat the traffic light. The gift shop lady who scuttled into her store attic to find us T-shirts because we wanted mementoes. The volunteers from Theodore UMC who housed and fed us (it’s the first ERT trip where I gained weight!). The pastor of a sister church who helped cook and showed up to work onsite. The charismatic pastor of another local UMC church who is from Africa and prayed over us like I haven’t heard since childhood. When she prayed, the Spirit rejoiced—literally!
But where else? Well, in each other and our own hip pockets.
I am not a fan of roofs but after many years of boating and boat ownership I know ropes, lines and knots. So when it came to removing downed debris from a roof and cutting away overhanging limbs, I went up—not courageously and bold, but I went up. My job was to secure suspension hoists to prevent cut limbs from falling and damaging the roof and then lowering them to the ground. You have no idea of the thrill of standing on a roof, throwing a line across an upper limb, securing the line, then belaying that line while paralyzed with fear.
But the other team members did. They patiently gave me all the time and encouragement needed, and the limbs were cut and removed safely.
I am also not a fan of chainsaws. I can use one. I’ve been trained to use one safely and I have the knee scars to prove I can operate one both ways! However, I would prefer to pull downed limbs and debris and maintain a safe working area for others running the saws, so that’s what I was assigned to do.
I am trained to assess disaster sites but had never done so. It’s a bit unnerving if you dwell too long on the importance of the task and its responsibility but, through the coaching and assistance provided, assess I did, and it brought a new and uplifting personal relationship with the homeowners.
Did I mention I’m not a fan of roofs? Well, after the initial experience, we were faced with a house that had sustained extensive damage to a shingle roof that was already many years past due for replacement. What shingle gravel was left was loose and the fiberglass strands of the shingle cores were exposed and slick, and up I went. I was of little or no value other than sitting down so the tarp wouldn’t blow away, but I scooted after Mike and handed him wooden nailing laths, and he kept telling me that whatever I could do was not only enough but great.
Then we began the house next door. At first I could only hold the tarp taut for others to secure, but as my comfort level grew, I was finally scooting around rolling lath and nailing on sections. I felt validated!
So where was Jesus? Well, we were a group of various backgrounds socially, culturally and economically; we were racially, gender, politically diverse. We were bonded together by love, commitment, the power of the Holy Spirit and the Grace of Jesus.
The question wasn’t, “Where was Jesus today?” It was where wasn’t He? Why was He so prevalent? Why was He so obvious? Why so near? Could it possibly be that we were simply looking? That we were not focusing on obstacles but options, similarities instead of differences, common ground instead of eroded connections?
Could it be that Jesus was so very present because He always is—if we will but look and, despite our differences and all that would separate us, embrace His presence?